BOSTON (CBS) – Elaine Newman remembers flipping on the evening news in January 2016 and seeing images of a familiar building engulfed in flames with smoke billowing high into the Boston sky.
“I was horrified,” Newman recalled. “It was just awful.”
The building was her dad’s dental office on Babson Street, where Dr. Walter Holman had treated people’s pain in Mattapan for more than 50 years.
Through the news coverage, Newman heard her dad had made it out safely.
However, firefighters had to rescue her brother, Christopher Holman, from the smoke-filled structure. He was fighting for his life at the hospital. A week later, he died from injuries suffered during the blaze.
“We would give anything to have him back,” Newman said through tears. “It was physically and emotionally devastating for my father.”
As the family coped with the tragedy, Newman said they received a surprising gut punch months later: A lawsuit filed by one of the firefighters who responded to the scene that night.
A Boston fire captain had suffered a leg injury when he fell through the floor during the response. Investigators determined the fire had sparked from dental equipment, specifically an unattended Bunsen burner.
The lawsuit accuses Dr. Holman of negligence, and claims the firefighter has endured pain and suffering, an impaired earning capacity, and spent large sums of money on medical care.
“It was an accident. It was a terrible, tragic accident,” Newman expressed. “We were stunned this could happen.”
Massachusetts state law provides first responders with their full salaries when they are injured on the job. It also covers all their medical expenses.
The WBZ I-Team confirmed the City of Boston has covered all of the firefighter’s medical expenses.
Payroll records also show his earnings have remained consistent over the past several years: $164,727 in 2015; $164,177 in 2016 (the year of the injury); and $162,927 in 2017.
The wages are a combination of regular and injury pay as the firefighter has bounced back and forth between “injury” and “light duty” work status several times since January 2016.
A Boston Fire Department spokesman said the 61-year-old captain has now filed for a disability retirement.
Civil litigation attorney Marsha Kazarosian told the I-Team it is probably surprising to the general public that Massachusetts law allows first responders to sue for negligence.
“Most people have the belief that when a firefighter or police officer takes the job, a component of that job is danger,” Kazarosian said.
The attorney said many states adopt what’s known as the “firefighter’s rule,” where the injuries are considered an inherent risk of the job.
However, through what’s known as the “rescue doctrine,” Massachusetts allows first responders to recover damages for things like pain and suffering if they can prove negligence.
The firefighter’s attorney, Benjamin Zimmerman from the SUGARMAN law firm, told the I-Team the statute is also good for taxpayers because cities and towns are reimbursed when there is a civil judgment.
“It would be pretty unfair if a regular citizen could recover damages for a fire or other accident due to carelessness, but not the very person called to deal with that disaster,” Zimmerman said.
It turns out the insurance policy at the dental office only covered the structure, but did not include liability. Zimmerman said it is against the wishes of his client to pursue Dr. Holman’s personal assets, so it is increasingly likely the lawsuit will be dismissed.
However, Newman said the stress of litigation has only added to the heartache for her father, who is currently living in a rehab facility.
“People need to be aware that when a firefighter steps on your property, even though they are there to help, if they get hurt, you could lose everything,” she told the I-Team.
Ryan Kath can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.